Houston showed her softer side recently. The International Quilt Festival, second in size only to the Oil Technology Conference held annually in May, runs for over a week bringing exhibitors, vendors and punters from around the world to amble the halls of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Eleven countries at last count were represented, and of the 60,000 or so who paid entry the vast majority were women of shall we say indeterminate age, but starting at 50.
I am neither a quilter nor a carpet weaver and yet can appreciate the artistry of both. One of the lessons learnt on my stroll up and down the aisles was that like a fine Isfahan rug, quilts too are checked for the skill of the artisan by looking at the back of the piece and noting the threads. Standing guard behind the cords and posted throughout the halls were armies of white-gloved denizens of propriety, each happy to carefully lift a corner of quilt for a curious viewer. If the gloves weren’t cotton they could certainly have been kid, so gentle was the manoeuvre.
The variety of styles was also vast, from traditional such as seen on granny’s bed to contemporary with the clean spare lines of minimalism and everything in between, including Texana and a section devoted to breast cancer research. An eye-catching quilt featuring a pink bra that defied size with a brilliant blue background drew me to the area, where on closer inspection the quilt hanging next to it proved to be of breasts and nipples, presumable drawing the attention to the fact that cancer attacks women of all sizes and colours.
The grand prize of $10,000 went to Sue McCarthy from Roy, Utah for her quilt depicting her thirty-year marriage through Japanese culture by honouring the harmony within both partners. The quilt, predominantly red and black with intricate gold metallic thread, took 600 hours over 8 months to create and used 15,000 yards of thread. In a wonderful irony of culture and place Mrs. McCarthy told me she had stopped at a quilt that had caught her eye, only to find the artist was Japanese but whose quilt passion was traditional Amish.
The Japanese were dominant with 82 quilters in the finalist line-up. One woman, Katsumi Shinami was visiting for the second time but has family history at the Festival through her mother, who exhibited in Houston 16 years ago. Textiles, I learnt, have always been an important element in Japanese design with sashiko, described as surface embellishment embroidery, being a way for working class women to circumvent social restrictions that stated, in ancient times, that only certain elements of society were allowed to wear bright colours and cotton.
All colours, fabrics and styles of dress were in evidence at the Festival. Groups of portly women augmenting denim jeans with distinctive quilted and appliquéd waistcoats were dominant throughout, with quilted bags coming a close second. One group added to their ensemble furry, pink bunny ears; another crowns glittering with diamenté adornments. They were a necessary accoutrement in the milling mass of women where comments such as “Oh gee, where the heck am I?” trilled the aisles.
Children were few and far between, with young men a scarcity though I heard one conversation that did not auger well for the rest of the family’s day.
“Go stand by your momma Travis,” said a fierce, stout grey-haired woman waiting to snap a photo of her daughter, granddaughter and grandson standing by the quilt covered 1996 Chevrolet Blazer.
“No,” said the recalcitrant youth.
“Go do it!”
“Awww,” he grumbled as he stood stony faced by the car, the brain-child of the Shiner Heritage Quilter’s Guild.
But men were catered to. Deep in the back of Hall E at the convention centre is the Husband’s Lounge in which three reclining chairs and various other seats are curtained off and invite weary spouses to rest and watch the game, football of course. As I peered in, a tall crinkle-eyed man wearing boots and a big belt buckle looked over my shoulder at the fully occupied space and said, “I shoulda come here first” before trailing off to find his wife.
For Downtown Houston, spot the quilter is an easy game to play as visitors emerge from the thrumming halls and refocus their gaze on Discovery Green and the great outdoors. Quilting is big business in America with the industry accounting for $3.6 billion each year. And attendees spend here too, at the exhibition itself, in the hotels and restaurants, an estimated $50 million in just one week.
Welcome too is the artistry shown through the melding of cultures, colours and cottons, and the conversations between nations all based around quilts.